ICAO Opens Investigation on Ryanair Flight 4978

The diverted flight from Athens to Vilnius raises serious issues.

The last in-person meeting of the ICAO council was in pre-COVID times.Courtesy ICAO

On May 23, 2021, a scheduled Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, was diverted as it transitioned the airspace over Belarus, and instructed to land at Minsk. Belarus’ air traffic control informed the pilots of a bomb threat—the purported reason for the diversion, though the flight was quite near its destination already—yet once Flight FR4978 landed and was searched, no device was found. At the stop in Minsk, however, one of the passengers, Roman Protasevich, a journalist, was arrested.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on May 27 reported that it has opened an investigation into the purpose behind the diversion and its repercussions for international flight over the region. The council held a special meeting to discuss the apparent “forced diversion,” outlining the need to understand “whether there had been any breach by any ICAO Member State of international aviation law, including the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention) and its Annexes,” according to an ICAO statement. Article 55 of the Chicago Convention governing international aviation agreements allows for the opening of such an investigation.

“The Council has therefore decided that all relevant facts should be officially established through an ICAO investigation conducted by the ICAO Secretariat,” said ICAO Council president Salvatore Sciacchitano. ICAO Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu in turn answered the council’s decision during the meeting, assuring the council the support and cooperation of the Secretariat in implementing the decision. In the meantime, many airlines have rerouted flights to avoid crossing Belarus airspace and pilots are advised to exercise caution in the region.